Wyoming Churches Pivot to Digital Worship

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By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily

Every Sunday, Father Rick Veit wakes up early to prepare for his two Sunday services, one at 8 a.m. and the other at 10:30 a.m., at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Cheyenne.

Every Sunday, Veit sees an average of more than 100 people in his pews. Members of the congregation are dressed in their literal Sunday best, ready to hear the word of God from the man who’s been leading them for 15 years.

Every Sunday is a chance for congregations in churches of all walks of life to come together and take a couple hours to worship. It’s a chance to start fresh for the week, where a person can walk out of the church and feel energized about the days ahead.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has closed church doors across the country, a number of Wyoming churches are pivoting to the digital realm to hold church services every weekend.

Since Sunday is Easter, many have had to prepare for a day of quiet reflection instead of the wonderfully busy Sunday that Easter normally is.

In more than a decade, Veit can safely say he’s seen more than 300 people in his pews every Easter Sunday. This year, there will be five people at St. Mark’s on Sunday, including him.

“It’s killing me to do church in front of only a few people because no one laughs at my jokes,” Veit said. “But really, we’re an old, ancient church working on some new ways to deliver the Word.”

Even though the pews won’t be packed with people, Veit will still hold services at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., just like always. Every week, the church livestreams the services to its Facebook page and then uploads them to YouTube a couple hours later. This Sunday will be no different.

Veit did note that his liturgies have gotten shorter with the digital shift, something his congregation seems to appreciate.

On Sunday, St. Mark’s will have a shorter 8 a.m. service, a brief children’s class at 9:15 a.m. and then another main service at 10:30 a.m. Normally, the service is elaborate, but there will still be some fun moments during his livestreams.

“I give out little tchotchkes every year after my sermon, and I think people were worried they wouldn’t get one this year because the church is shut down,” he said. “That’s not the case. We mailed them out this week, with a note to our congregation.”

While there have been some challenges for a 150-year-old church to stream its services online, Veit noted that in a week, his sermons will garner 600 to 700. While he knows those numbers don’t translate to individual numbers, he’s excited to know people are watching the services throughout the week.

Some religious organizations, such as Gillette’s Living Rock Church, have decided to record services in advance, but post them late Saturday night or early Sunday morning for viewers to watch.

“It’s a little weird to get used to doing my sermons on Thursday instead of Sunday,” Living Rock Pastor Mark Stevens said. “I saw a meme the other day that said ‘Pray for your pastor so his sermons don’t look like Osama bin Laden capture videos.’ I laughed pretty hard at it, because it’s true.”

To keep the quality up on Living Rock’s videos, Stevens credits a college intern who had to return home to Gillette following the closing of the University of Wyoming. The church previously only recorded audio of the Sunday service, allowing the congregation to download it as a podcast.

But since the virus kept the Living Rock congregation from coming to the church, the pastors had to figure out how to bring the Word to the congregation.

For the last few weeks, Stevens has recorded a sermon and the church will send out a service guide to its congregation via email. On Sunday, the service video will be posted to the church’s Facebook page along with the service guide, so viewers can follow along.

This will be the same for the church’s Easter service on Sunday.

“Facebook used to be a place of controversy, but every Sunday, there seems to be a lot more Jesus on my timeline,” Stevens said. “I think there’s more of a spiritual awakening right now, because this virus has made us realize what’s important. God and family have been pushed to side in our everyday lives, but now families can just be with each other.”

Pastor T.J. Smith at Beacon Hill Church in Cheyenne is expecting an exciting, but cold, Easter Sunday.

“We decided to do a drive-in service as something special for Easter,” he said. “We got an FM transmitter, so when people drive up for service, we’ll hand them a guide, tell them where they can tune in on the radio and something special for any kids in the car, since they can’t go Easter egg hunting.”

Cheyenne’s weather forecast for Sunday is expected to be snowy, with a high of 27 degrees. But the service must go on.

Beacon Hill has been recording services with all of its pastors over the last few weeks, but for Easter, the staff wanted to do something special. They’d seen other churches around the country doing something similar, so they thought it would be fun to try.

No one will be allowed out of their cars to talk with each other. Instead, they’re encouraged to honk to say “hi.”

“I hear people who say they want to go to church now more than they ever did before,” Smith said. “We want to be with our congregation, but also know that we don’t want to put anyone in danger. This is a way for us to come together while still being safe.”

All three pastors encouraged people to take the holiday weekend to reflect on their faith and hope for the future.

“Love the best you can, because God knows we need it right now,” Veit said.

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